Recent reports have highlighted the fact that at least a quarter of the prison population at Chicago’s Cook County Jail suffer from serious mental health illnesses.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, the new head of the jail noted that out of the jail’s approximately 8,000 detainees, some 1,900 have been identified as suffering from mental illness. Dr. Nneka Jones, a 37-year-old clinical psychologist now in charge of the jail, told the press it is becoming a “social epidemic.”
In a previous interview with ThinkProgress, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart admitted, “Conservative numbers are 25, but we think it’s closer to 30 or 35 percent of our jail population that has a mental illness… so we’ve effectively become the largest mental health hospital in the country.”
Located in the highly impoverished West Side of Chicago, the dilapidated and sprawling jail is the largest single-site prison in the country. Conditions have long been dangerous and brutal for inmates, particularly the mentally ill, and are unlikely to change for the better. In a chiefly cosmetic move the Cook County sheriff appointed Dr. Nneka Jones as executive director of the facility on May 26, the first time a mental health professional has been hired to run a major US jail.
The conditions in the jail have previously been deemed so hazardous and inhumane that they were considered a violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights by federal authorities in 2008. In the last five years alone, with the deepening of the economic and social crisis, the number of inmates with mental health illnesses has more than doubled.
Cermak Health Services, the on-site hospital at the jail run by the county, suffers from extreme overcrowding and poor quality care. Most detainees with severe mental health issues are treated in an emergency triage fashion to temporarily ameliorate mental health issues with medications or to subdue detainees who have outbursts. The highly overcrowded jail and its hospital have effectively become a dumping ground for the mentally ill with no proper alternatives.